After years of being too hot to handle, NHS technology seems to have found an enthusiast in the Government
BBC 2’s Daily Politics show today carried an interview in which George Freeman MP (pictured), life sciences minister, enthused about electronic health records, personalised medicines and the possibilities of a digitised NHS. In the middle of a painful dispute with junior doctors in England, this is a risky time for a politician to lift his head above the parapet.
Especially as, rightly or wrongly, computerising the NHS has been seen for more than two decades as a portfolio too hot to handle, since the London Ambulance, Wessex and West Midlands scandals set the news agenda for IT fiascoes.
However Freeman, who before entering Parliament had a career in life sciences start-ups and venture capital, seems to prefer looking to the future. He is emerging as the first minister for e-health not only to enthuse about the topic - most do that for the first couple of months - but with some knowledge of the sector.
His ministerial portfolio, shared between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health, include data and technology and life sciences industrial strategy. In an article circulated at the new year, he set out his ambitions in the context of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the NHS’s founding in 1948.
“Almost 70 years on, I believe we have the chance to be as bold and innovative again, by embracing the new age of medical science and the transformative effect this can have for patients.”
Predicting that 2016 will be a landmark year for the sector, he recalled visits to see innovations at Moorfields Eye Hospital and John Radcliffe Hospital.
“Making sure the NHS is always leading the world in adopting innovations is one of my main priorities as minister, especially when it comes to adopting new technology across the system.” Information is the “oil” that flows through a modern health service, he said. “That’s why I introduced my Patient Data Bill in the last Parliament with the first ever fully updated integrated patient record passed into law last year.”
He concluded: “As we count down towards the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, I firmly believe we are putting in place a new model of healthcare as bold and innovative as a previous generation did in 1948. As the Life Sciences Strategy continues to go from strength to strength, my mission as minister is clear: working with all of you to make this bold vision a reality.”
Given the track record of previous technology ministers, it is unlikely that Freeman will be in the same post in two years time. But perhaps he is casting his eyes to higher things. A secretary of state for health with both a deep and cross-cutting understanding of the impact of information and life sciences technologies would be a true innovation.